It is quite mesmerising to watch FC Barcelona keep possession of the ball. The short passing is hardly as impressive as the vivid, almost choreographed, movement of teammates around the player in possession.
As you sit glued on your seat, watching them live or on television, it's easy to forget how difficult it is, what they are doing. The number of hours spent in creating that kind of coordination spans into the hundred-thousands, for the entire team put together.
However, for the coach looking at Barcelona, it isn't what you do when you are in control of the ball, it is what you do when the opposition has it, that makes a difference. The unsaid "six-second rule" or the "three pass rule" is the guiding force for the team during transition of possession.
When you gain possession or lose it, the next 6 seconds, in general, are a clue to how the game is going to proceed immediately after. The scenarios are different for different teams because it's based on how they react to loss or gain of possession. However, every team has its own style stamped on it by the coach or the sporting director, as the case might be.
Every coach has a plan of how the team will attack when they have possession of the ball. Almost all coaches have a plan of how they are going to defend against a particular opponent as well. However, without addressing transition of possession, you cannot truly say that you've coached your team in all aspects.
When losing possession or gaining it, your players' positioning on the pitch, the ball's position on the pitch and the opposition's position on the pitch has a lot of bearing as to how the next 6-seconds are going to turn out.
The question is: Why six seconds? What's the magic about the number "6"?
The answer is: Nothing! It's just a term that's becoming more popular as the game gets faster and more open. It all starts with that team of all teams, FC Barcelona and their reaction to the loss of possession. That got us thinking about how teams react to that loss of possession.
With each team you observe, there is a different attitude to the event, although almost all of them are more similar to each other than a handful of sides that stand out. There may be a lot more than a handful but understanding the 6-second rule won't require us to know them all.
Here are some of those scenarios that are generally applicable to every situation that you can come up with.
PREVENT QUICK COUNTERS
The first and most common strategy that teams employ is to prevent the quick counter attack that can be launched upon losing the ball. The player who loses the ball or the player closest to it tries to close down on the opposition player who has just won the ball.
The angle of closing down as well as the speed is designed to ensure that there is little or no opportunity to create an accurate counter-attack immediately after the ball is lost.
The objective is not always to try and win the ball back, unless obviously possible, but is to give enough time for team-mates to recover into their positions and organize the defence.
This is followed widely because it is considered the least risky of all strategies, with the bare-minimum number of players vying to win the ball back, thereby employing more in marking potential breakaway-runs.
By risking the least number of players in trying to win possession back, coaches can ensure that counter attacks are slower, and their team has lesser chance of being caught out rather than winning the ball back immediately.
Teams like Manchester City, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Juventus and others are regular followers of this pattern of defending, although at the highest level, it is more about how the opposition plays that decides how you will defend.
WIN IT BACK
The other alternative is to try and win the ball back as soon as you can. This has been made famous by the likes of FC Barcelona, who are known for their ability to hound out players who manage to dispossess a member of their line-up. Whether due to an intercepted pass or just a tackle, losing possession starts off this piranha-like feeding frenzy.
As soon as Barcelona lose the ball, the next 6-seconds are about winning the ball back and putting as many players into the thick of things as possible. Players support each other, block out passing angles and tear into the opposition players as quickly as possible, in a bid to win the ball back.
This carries on, in general, for about six seconds that can seem like an eternity on the football pitch. Usually, if the team that has won possession is able to withstand these 6-seconds, they will find that FC Barcelona settles down into defensive positions following that initial flurry.
Although this phenomenon wasn't common earlier, it has become more obvious now and teams are beginning to adapt to this movement by passing it around.
Usually, if a team manages around three passes, they can safely say that they are going to be out of immediate trouble of losing the ball right back. However, with 3 or 4 players pressing down on you, it is quite hard to get control over the ball and knock it around.
The trick is to press as hard as you can to win the ball back over 6-seconds or 3-passes, whichever happens first. If you win the ball back, you either recover your breath by holding possession in a safe place or you try and score immediately by holding possession or creating chances in the tight-part of the pitch.
If you don't win the ball by the, proverbial, "seventh second" or "third pass", then you fall back into defensive positions and return to your pre-planned defensive organization structure.
Such a policy will require teams to train extremely hard because perfecting that art of closing down the opposition, without leaving gaps for counter-attacks, requires a truck-load of discipline and understanding amongst the players. However, it is also one of the main reasons why the team also seems to have so much more of the possession than the opposition.
If your team has the coordination to move forward and back, or side-to-side extremely quickly, then you will find it extremely easy to create a numerical advantage over the opposition player in possession, even if s/he manages to pass to a team-mate.
When you have more players trying to win the ball back than the opposition have in their attempt to maintain possession, when you do win it back, you end up having a numerical advantage in maintaining possession yourself!
If there are three opposition players in a 20x20 area of the pitch, where the possession is gained, and 5 of your players rush in to get the ball back, it's a case of 5v3 in a 20x20 area where the opposition has to maintain possession with lesser players. How easy is that?
FALL BACK AND DOWN
The final option is to, as the name suggests, fall back completely but in this case, you are likely to fall down more often than not. While it might seem to be the perfect reaction to loss of possession, without pressurising the player who's won the ball, the risk of conceding to a counter is much greater.
The opposition player has little or no pressure to pick out a pass while attackers will have the advantage of running towards the direction they need to go to, while defenders come with the need to come back into their position and mark their opponents. The attacking team already has the advantage and you end up being forced to catch up!
Not only do you start behind the opposition to begin with, your attempts to make up ground are not aimed at staying ahead of your opposition, but only at reaching where your opposition is. Since they are moving as are you, you never catch up and end up conceding more often than not.
While it may seem as the least risky of the three options knowing that the entire team is falling back, it isn't the case because everything is based around the concept of time and in the moments after the ball is lost, while we are trying to gather our bearings and get organized, the opposition is already taking advantage of our listless positioning and moving onwards towards our goal.
CHOOSING YOUR STYLE
How you choose to play your team depends largely on what kind of players you have on the side. If you have players who are technically really good and quite capable of maintaining possession in dangerous parts of the pitch, then you are likely to find it to your advantage if you win the ball back quickly by applying Barcelona-like pressure.
If your team is stronger, tactically, as a unit, your players closest to the ball can delay the counter while your team gets back into position. Basically, it is something that you need to decide based on your team's strengths and weaknesses.
If you choose the last fall-back method, then your teams are unlikely to be very attacking sides. If you prefer nil-nil or 1-nil score-lines, or if your team is better defensively than in offense, then the third option might fit your bill. However, move too far ahead and you will be in trouble.
If you bring your players up through the various age-groups, teaching them to be confident about moving up the pitch and instilling the good habits involved in maintaining possession with higher numbers – you are safe!
Your players will have the confidence to play up front and press when the opposition wins possession. If you build the right habits, and good habits at that, from the very beginning, you will find that by the time you play competitions, you will be pleased with the results that you see.
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